The Benefits and Consequences of Telling True Stories

Filed Under (Activism, Adam, Art, Autism and The Media, Critical Disability Studies, Discrimination, Ethics, Family, Writing) by Estee on 06-07-2009

This post is part of a series of posts I am writing on Writing About Disabled Children.

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We are all storytellers. The only difference is that some of us write things down. The other difference is that some writers are also artists — able to craft a work in order that bigger ideas are suggested, open-ended, and not written as if to strike a blow to the head. In other words, it’s much more effective to create the sublime message in a work of art in order to convey an impactful message, oftentimes, than simply stating the message itself. Art is the bridge to understanding humanity.

In my last post Why Do We, As Parents, Write? (see several posts down), I mentioned that I was trying to respond to a series of self-inflicted questions. Several of the questions all have generally to do with the consequences and benefits of writing about children with the additional peril of writing about disabled children — usually children who cannot speak for themselves.

As I’ve noted, I have numerous reasons for raising these questions at this point in my four-year blogging history. Firstly, I am going through a divorce. I hesitate because the story I would tell would still be influenced by my being too close to be self-deprecating, no matter what the circumstance. I tend to think that all great memoir writing about difficult life circumstances has this element in it: the ability to see oneself and one’s on imperfections even if the action towards you was unjustified, as well as the ability to be compassionate to characters who have done unjustifiable acts. In what I believe to be interesting narrative, everyone has their reasons which leaves out judgment. To understand others and their motivations is the foundation of all good writing and formulation of interesting characters. Of course, I am, as they say, still “too close” to write about my personal life, if ever I do at all. I will likely have more interesting things to write about.  In order to tell really good stories of truth or fiction, we need to understand our perspectives and assumptions at a particular point in time. Without dissecting them, our writing and characters remain flat.

One concern I have is for my son to read what I write about him. I want him to feel that I was real and wrote about him with truth, compassion and dignity. Compassion is the key to telling true stories, I believe. I want him to think that I was a good artist who didn’t have to expose every detail, but got the bigger point across. So, I have made a commitment to him and to myself to write when I feel I can truly step away from things that are still emotionally charged. It’s not that I want to be emotionally distant – indeed my emotions are a full part of my experience and they need to be written.  It’s the manner in which I’m able to write about them that matters. It is the art and the craft of writing that can elevate a trite piece of writing to a piece that lives long after we’ve moved on.

The next issue I am having is one of revealing details about my son at this point in his development, perhaps influenced also by a divorce process (and thankfully both mom and dad are doing an excellent job as parents, still) as the vulnerable need not be made more so. This is my paranoia as his mother and I realize I am supposed to think about such things. It is my job and obligation. Even if he is resilient and strong (as we parents generally come to realize about our growing children), we are on our guard nonetheless. Writing about the vulnerable – be it children, disabled children who can’t speak for themselves, disabled adults, the aged and so forth, requires us to think much more deeply about how we write.

As I see Adam develop, my attitude has changed and softened significantly than at the time of his diagnosis. I think there is a huge urge of many parents to write about the diagnosis because there is narrative tension that is still interesting to the outsider. This is when most writing about autistic children really gets done. We read perhaps too much now (just think that a few years ago there was very little), on that D-Day or “diagnosis day.” There is a lot of interest from new parents of disabled children to relate to the pain and conflict of early diagnosis. Little is written about learning how to live with a disability in the sense that the worry dissipates. Mostly, what we read are memoirs about how parents seek to cure their children instead of learning about themselves as parents in a world that is filled with different kinds of people. Donna Williams remains the top of my list of autistic writers who not only write beautifully and artistically, but tell a story that goes beyond childhood. The tension is still there, but the story isn’t sensationalized for the sake of selling books.

Let’s face it: our lives are not like everyone else’s, which is why so many of us need to write.  “Suffering has always animated life-writing,” says Arthur Frank who has written about his own illness. Indeed that familiar theme of finding peace, a spiritual awakening, an appreciation for life itself, is a kind-of triumph-over-struggle theme that appeals to most of us in a challenging world. I think of Audre Lorde and her cancer diaries and poems that I devoured after my two cancer surgeries last year. Her honesty and artistry helped me see myself as fully human even with my stage of dwindling self-image and pain.

Yet what is especially disturbing to me is when that theme is diluted into a sugar-coated story, only telling of the good stuff — you know, how all our children are “angels” kind of rhetoric.  To my chagrin, I’m afraid that much of the “acceptance movement” has turned saccharine and in it a fear to acknowledge the challenges and the pain as well as the joys.

Conversely, when all a parent does is complain about how horrifying their disabled child is and disruptive to their lives, without qualification or deep circumspection, is equally if not even more disturbing, for we get a sense that we are not being told the whole story, or perhaps a story with a particular agenda and worse, we are being told that disabled children are a blight and burden on society thus threatening their right to exist. So in order to write a good memoir, and how we define what is good if not ethical life writing is what’s at stake here.

Frank says, with regards in how to respond to illness and disability, “what is done within the body, what happens in relationships and how existential and spiritual attitudes change – is presented as a sequence of choices. The writer’s identity becomes crucially implicated in how she or he makes these choices: a person’s responses are a measure of his or her character.” (p. 174 The Ethics of Life Writing).The stories we choose to tell and how we tell them in the case of writing about our children, is therefore an indication of our character.

Somewhere along the road to raising children, either at the time of birth or later on, our expectations were thwarted. That in and of itself has been enough to warrant many people to approach us and say, “you should write a book!” But how good of a book? To what end? What are we trying to achieve?  My soon-to-be ex husband even came to me regarding the circumstances of our divorce stated “if I were you, I would write a book about this.” What an invitation!! Not that I will necessarily take advantage of it for my own personal gain, for that is not the point here.

I did, in the past, write about many encounters with friends and family regarding discussions about autism and their reactions to Adam to which I was angry (an honest emotion), but used as illustrations of a day-in- the-life of an autistic family. I felt that these examples were especially important to illustrate how our society has been trained to react and respond, no less treat, disabled people. Those encounters in mere blog posts were enough to achieve that tension. In as far as maintaining relationships is concerned, some managed to stick by me and support the purpose of the posts, and others couldn’t handle seeing themselves within the narrative. I once received an email from a friend’s husband referring to my writing as “getting things off my chest,” thereby diminishing my feelings, our significant experiences and my writing. Yet, I write and express to get things off my chest, that’s for certain. It’s just that I hope not to sound pathetic doing it. I hope the writing transcends the individuals to illustrate the more important points —  and the point that we all have much to learn.

But isn’t that what writing, gossiping, telling stories is all about? I am making a general assumption here that all gossip is negative, which isn’t necessarily true. I will also suggest that gossip, for the most part in my view often has the sole intent of denigrating another person. So in telling true stories, intention matters.

Telling stories, it can be argued as parents of disabled children, is still important. It is especially important that we as parents write  well — truthfully and with dignity. I cannot say that I have accomplished to my satisfaction, the “writing well” part. To accomplish this, it takes great deliberation and like anything, practice. To live with disability in the family, as in any other oppressed minority group, is to also live politically whether we like it or not. This adds another sensitive dimension to our writing.

Many parents of typical children will not experience this to the same extent, if at all. For me to tell those stories during those early stages of Adam’s development were exceptionally important in navigating our way through ignorance and understanding it – my insecurity about such statements admittedly came of a place where I was also in their shoes, that is the shoes of the ignorant – completely unaware of the full extent of disability itself — meaning the community, the politics, the meaning and history of disability, the lives. Should I keep these stories to myself or do they benefit not only myself in my growth as Adam’s parent, but also others who are on the same path? Would those people still be my friends if I hadn’t of told those stories?  What is friendship anyway if we cannot be honest? Right…? (I am happy to report that the really great friends still hang around even if rigorous disagreement or debate is involved). Of this I would emphasize that the intention is important with regards to telling our stories. It might just be difficult after all, to be a writer.

In her essay, Friendship, Fiction and Memoir: Trust and Betrayal In Writing From One’s Own Life, Claudia Mills  discusses the risks of writing about one’s family and friends and seeks the meaning of friendship as her guide. Using Aristotle and Kant — “we seek the good for the other for his own sake and not our own,” (Aristotle) and “The strictest friendship requires an understanding friend who considers himself bound not to share without express permission a secret entrusted to him with anyone else,” (Kant)   –Mills painfully deliberates, as if her conscience is eating at her: “What contexts are we primae facie justified in sharing the stories of our most intimate associates with others?”

She suggests that she couldn’t have relationships if she couldn’t talk about them – that we benefit from talking about them and notes how secrecy can be “corrosive and damaging.” Yet there is a difference between talking or writing at someone else’s expense, as I said, in order to hurt them. While telling the truth may be hurtful to others, or be outright embarrassing, it is this shame that is the most costly to our peace of mind. There is nothing more liberating than living your life out in the open. But living mine out in the open does not necessarily mean I have the right to live Adam’s out in the open for him. So we must choose our vignettes and words carefully, without over-editing which also takes away from the authenticity of an interesting story. Mills takes the easier route and chooses to write fiction, even though her family and friends seem to recognize themselves in her stories.

For parents with disabled children, this writing can be a cathartic process and a way of breaking down the reductive view of our disabled children. Arthur Kleinman, in The Illness Narratives, suggests that people who are ill are reduced as people in terms of their pain and debility, or their illness. That proverbial medical view of the disabled person as a mere patient instead of a complex individual remains a part of the demoralization process. Instead, Arthur Frank turns it around. He calls his personal narrative a “remoralization process,” an act of telling a counter-story to the ones that we see all too often in the news and Hollywood and much of literary media where disabled people are used in the background like bridges to the “real” characters. In looking at narratives like Michael Berube’s Life As We Know It, and Thomas Murray’s, The Worth of A Child, and Cranes’ Aiden’s Way, among other parental narratives, Frank points out that we as parents write in order to break down the assumptions – that our writing can be “acts of justification” as we write to justify our children’s right to exist.

As I continue my writing and work to become a better, more artistic writer (I am hopeful with much more work), I am aware that to summarize Adam as a series of impairments, to finalize his character in the narration, is what the medical community already does. So I want to avoid this at all costs. “[Reflexivity] is moral work, since what’s at stake is personhood and its entitlements.” Most of us are all too aware of society’s rush to categorize our kids, to judge them, reduce them instead of viewing them as people with a right to be included in everything.

This is a great risk that we undertake as parent-writers — this act of finalizing our children, defining them  and thus imposing identity that has really not yet been fully formed.  As Frank notes about the writers of the exceptional memoirs cited above, “They resolve this dilemma, and keep a dialogue open, by refusing to say any last word about their children. The child’s future – his or her horizon of possibilities – is kept open, though this requires nothing less than redrawing the horizons of human possibility itself. These writings become teachings in the morality of respect: not principles of respect, as in Kantian respect for persons, but practices of respect, which the writing not only describes but reflexively exemplifies.”

I hope in my next post about writing about children, I will be able to compare the recent writings of Jenny McCarthy and Temple Grandin’s mother’s older book A Thorn in My Side, in order to illustrate what I consider to be problematic in the name of our children’s dignity and telling our true stories.

As for my story, it’s easier to dance around it than tell it at the moment during my set of current circumstances. I am only left with the deliberations of what and how to write next.

References:

Credit for the term “narrative tension” goes to Arthur Frank in his essay, Moral Non-Fiction: Life Writing and Children’s Disability, from The Ethics of Life Writing.
Claudia Mills, Friendship, Fiction, and Memoir: Trust and Betrayal in Writing From One’s Own Life, from The Ethics of Life Writing, edited by Paul John Eakin, New York: Cornell University Press, 2004, pp. 101-120
Ibid, p. 102 & p. 110-111.

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About Me


ESTÉE KLAR

I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.